In many ways, the cappuccino is the quintessential espresso drink. Smooth, velvety, strong, and delicious.
The only thing that matches its deliciousness is its sheer ambiguity.
Order a cappuccino in a coffee shop and you can get back anything from a smallish cup of velvety coffee to a literal bowl of frothy coffee. You might get amazing latte art or you may get a blob of white frothed milk. You might get a single shot or a double shot, chocolate sprinkles, or no sprinkles.
So what in the world is a Cappuccino? It is a catch all term for anything and everything or does it actually have an established meaning?
What A Cappuccino Isn’t
There is a delightful amount of lore around the creation of the cappuccino. The most well-known is the story of the name. Cappuccino comes from the capuchin monks with their distinctive hood and deliberate bald spot (or tonsure). According to lore, that is why a cappuccino has a ring of brown color on the outside, to reflect the tonsure of the capuchins. Absolutely fascinating but also absolutely wrong.
Another prevalent myth is the law of thirds. That a cappuccino is made of ⅓ espresso, ⅓ steamed milk, and ⅓ milk foam. This very tidy calculation is regularly passed around coffee bars but again isn’t actually true (for one thing it would make a cappuccino around 75ml!).
What Is A Cappuccino?
In reality, the name cappuccino comes from the word kapuziner, which describes a coffee drink in Vienna (not Italy!) in the 1800s. A kapuziner was a small brewed coffee in which hot milk or cream was added until it reached the brown color of the robes worn by the Capuchin monks. As with much lore, there is a seed of truth.
A good working definition is that a cappuccino is a single shot of espresso with a 1:3-1:4 coffee-to-milk ratio and at least 1 cm of foamed milk on top. Traditionally it is served in a smallish 150-180ml cup.
The Specialty Coffee Association defines a Cappuccino as:
“5–6 oz coffee and milk beverage that should produce a harmonious balance of rich, sweet milk and espresso. A cappuccino is prepared with a single shot of espresso, textured milk, and a minimum of 1 cm of foam depth (assessed vertically).”
So despite common experience, a cappuccino should be quite small in size and strong in taste. Also, while the milk should be textured to be more firm than liquidy, it shouldn’t be overly aerated and foamy. So the large frothed milk monstrosities served by various coffee chains are certainly something but they are not a cappuccino!
This traditional definition of a cappuccino is more carefully maintained in Italy where this drink is served in a small cup with no latte art but instead a blob of microfoam surrounded by a ring of brown espresso around the edge of the cup.
Indeed a cappuccino rightly brewed is an absolute delight.
In the words of coffee luminaire James Hoffmann:
‘I think a great cappuccino is the pinnacle of milk-based espresso drinks. A rich layer of dense, creamy foam combined with sweet, warming milk and the flavours of a well-brewed espresso are an absolute delight… I confess that the best ones I’ve drunk disappear in a few greedy mouthfuls.’
Cappuccino vs Other Drinks
Cappuccino vs Latte
A latte or caffè latte has more finely textured milk that mixes with the espresso in a way that intentionally isn’t so for a Cappuccino. Also, a Latte is far larger than a cappuccino and is usually around 240ml. As such the latte is more gentle and less intense than a traditional cappuccino (although you wouldn’t know it in most coffee shops!).
Cappuccino vs Flat White
The Flat white coming out of Australasia has thrown a further spanner into the works in differentiating espresso-based drinks. A Flat White is actually very similar in milk-to-coffee ratio and overall experience to a traditional cappuccino but has only around 0.5cm of foam (hence ‘Flat’). As well as somewhat altering the experience this means a Flat White can better maintain latte art.
What is a Cappuccino?
In summary, despite the global and near-universal confusion, there is an established meaning and tradition to the Cappuccino.
A cappuccino is made with a single shot of espresso, a 1:3-1:4 coffee-to-milk ratio, at least 1cm of foamed milk on top, and in a smallish cup.
Rightly brewed, the cappuccino is strong, velvety, and just delicious. It is perhaps one of the very best milk-based espresso drinks to understand the flavor complexities of different beans and in an enviable experience.
So find a cafe or barista that actually knows how to make a cappuccino and get into it!